Ask What is Possible - On Margaret Wheatley and the Belief in Human Goodness
Turning to One Another
by Margaret J. Wheatley
There is no greater power than a community discovering
what it cares about.
Ask “What is possible?” not “What’s wrong?” Keep asking.
Notice what you care about.
Assume that many others share your dreams.
Be brave enough to start a conversation that matters.
Talk to people you know.
Talk to people you don’t know.
Talk to people you never talk to.
Be intrigued by the differences you hear.
Expect to be surprised.
Treasure curiosity more than certainty.
Invite in everybody who cares to work on what’s possible.
Acknowledge that everyone is an expert about something.
Know that creative solutions come from new connections.
Remember, you don’t fear people whose story you know.
Real listening always brings people closer together.
Trust that meaningful conversations can change your world.
Rely on human goodness. Stay together.
Even though this book was published in 2002, it feels as though it could have been written yesterday. On her website for the book Wheatley says:
Working in the world, I've grown increasingly distressed. Especially in the last few years, things clearly are not going right. Good people are finding it increasingly difficult to do what they know is best. Whether we're in a small village or a major global corporation, in any country and in any type of work, we are being asked to work faster, more competitively, more selfishly, and to focus only on the short-term. These values cannot lead to anything healthy and sustainable, and they are alarmingly destructive. I believe we must learn quickly now how to work and live together in ways that bring us back to life.
I've explored this distress with tens of thousands of people, and have discovered something obvious and extremely hopeful. We are all human. The unique expressions of culture and tradition that give us such interestingly different appearances are based on the same human desires for learning, freedom, meaning, and love. You and I are yearning for the same things - wherever we are, using whatever means we have available.
In this dark time, it is more difficult to do good and lasting work, or to create healthy change. But people still are basically good and caring. We may feel distressed, overwhelmed, numbed or afraid. But beneath these feelings, we still desire learning, freedom, meaning, and love.
Because this is a time when we are bombarded with images of human badness, I have been intentionally exploring human goodness. Many people have taught me about human goodness - poets, spiritual teachers, everyday people living lives quite different from mine. From them I've learned that no matter how beaten down we are - by poverty, by oppressive leadership, by tragedy - the human spirit is nearly impossible to destroy. We humans keep wanting to learn, to improve things, and to care about each other.
In So Far From Home, published in 2012, Margaret Wheatley invites the reader to absorb the book slowly. "This book intends to provoke and disturb, to console and affirm you," she says. "These strong responses require time and reflection." She acknowledges the darkness and contemplates the teaching of Chögyam Trungpa which begins: "We cannot change the world as it is." We are not going to save the world, she says, rather her approach is to transform from "saviour to warrior."
"The subject of this book is warriorship. I want to encourage us to claim this role for ourselves, to be warriors for the human spirit, people brave enough to refrain from adding to the fear and aggression of this time. This is no easy task, not to meet aggression with aggression, to consciously choose to stay out of fear and support others to do the same, to quell the anxiety and anger that erupts so reflexively and choose for peace. Of course it's hard - what isn't these days? I just want to be struggling for the right things."
Wheatley asks, how can we "find the strength and confidence to do meaningful work in a terrible time?" We need to draw new maps. She begins by recognizing the "dark details of where we are" and describes how people lost in the wilderness must at some point accept their situation. She quotes Lawrence Gonzales who says, "Like it or not, you must make a new mental map of where you are or you will die. To survive, you must find yourself. Then it won't matter where you are...Not being lost is not a matter getting back to where you started from: it is a decision not be to lost wherever you happen to find yourself. It's simply saying, "I'm not lost, I'm right here."
Reading the last third of So Far From Home, one comes across the prophecy of the Shambhala warriors, which Wheatley says indicated the structure of the book. It begins:
"There comes a time when all life on Earth is in danger. Great barbarian powers have arisen.
Although these powers spend their wealth in preparations to annihilate one another, they have much in common: weapons of unfathomable destructive power, and technologies that lay waste our world. In this era, when the future of sentient life hangs by the frailest of threads, the Shambhala warriors appear."
The quote Wheatley strikes upon is that "by opening to the world as it is, we may find that gentleness, decency, and bravery are available - not only to us but to all human beings." she acknowledges that the natural responses are anger, despair, etc, but refuses negative emotions as motivation. It's possible, instead, to move forward with compassion and insight.
I also brought home from the library Wheatley's small inspirational book called Perseverance. She says, "This is how the world always changes. Everyday people not waiting for someone else to fix things or come to their rescue, but simply stepping forward, working together, figuring out how to make things better." Interspersed in the book are quotations and lines of poetry, and I was happy to be reminded of these by Clarissa Pinkola Estes: